Want to get your kids outside, and maybe learn a bit about our local birds?? Join us for this great family activity — a Winter Bird Count for Kids!
Saturday February 1, 2020 @ Bowring Park
I was thousands of kilometres from home, leading an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario, when I got the news … a EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER had been confirmed at home on “the rock”. It was painful enough that my “most wanted” bird for Newfoundland decided to show up while I was away, but it was also ~7hrs way from St. John’s and would be a challenge for me to see even if it stayed long enough for me to return home. Only a birder can understand the anxious feelings that tingled through me during the last few days of the Ontario tour 😉
I returned home and enjoyed a much-needed holiday weekend — icebergs, ice cream, and family time. The oystercatcher was still hanging in there … but with tours booked for early in the week, it would need to hang on a little longer. It did! On Wednesday evening (May 22), long-time birding buddy Chris Ryan and I packed up and started the journey – driving as far as my parents’ house in Lewisporte for the night and continuing on to catch the first ferry to Long Island the next morning. After a very short crossing (complete with an iceberg and two humpback whales!), we arrived at Lushes Bight and scoured the small harbour. The fear of “dipping” (missing a bird) were beginning to mount after 15 minutes of not seeing it — but then it happened. I spotted a small black headed bobbing up and down behind a rock … it HAD to be!! And it was!!
We spent the rest of the morning sitting, watching, enjoying and photographing this ultra-rare visitor from Europe. This individual marks just the 5th North American record (all but one were here in Newfoundland; the other on the very isolated Buldir Island in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska), and the first “gettable” one in more than 20 years! Our 1100 km (return) “twitch” had panned out with incredible views of this magnificent bird!!
I guess I have to find a new bird to top my “most wanted” list 😉
A few weeks ago (February 2019), I had the wonderful opportunity to co-lead an Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Belize & Tikal — two very exciting destinations! As most of you know, I routinely lead tours at home and abroad for this excellent Canadian company (check out the bottom of this post for some upcoming trips), sharing the magic of birds & birding with lots of great people along the way. This was just my second visit to Central America, following an exploratory trip to Honduras in 2017. Fortunately, I was joining my friend and birder extraordinaire Ernesto Carman, who hails from Costa Rica and was eager to show off this incredible little corner of the world.
This tour focuses on three superb location – Pook’s Hill & Crooked Tree in Belize, and Tikal National Park in neighbouring Guatemala. The rich mix of habitats (e.g. rainforest, pine-oak savannah, and vast wetlands) along with stunning history and ancient Mayan temples makes for a well-rounded yet nature-filled trip. Below are just a few of the many, many highlights. Be sure to check out this Flickr album for even more photos (though I apologize for the quality, since most were edited on my phone during the tour).
Be sure to check out this Flickr album for even more photos (though I apologize for the quality, since most were edited on my phone during the tour).
For details on birding with me in Newfoundland this summer:
Catch up with me on one of these upcoming Eagle-Eye Tours:
Details on the next Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Belize & Tikal:
Bearded Seals are unusual visitors to most of Newfoundland – especially the Avalon Peninsula – but it does happen from time to time as a wayward individual wanders down from further north or hitches a ride on the arctic ice that drifts our way every winter/spring. The name “bearded” comes from their long, white whiskers (which are very sensitive and used to detect food on the mirky ocean floor) – although many people know them by a different name derived from another characteristic feature – “square flipper”. The largest of the arctic seals, adults can reach 8 feet in length and weigh an astounding 750 pounds.
Although I’ve been fortunate to spot four Bearded Seals on the Avalon Peninsula over the past decade or so, I was still surprised when my friend Andrew McCarthy posted a photo of one on Twitter yesterday afternoon – from right here in St. John’s. This morning my daughter, nephew and I headed down the harbour to look for it … and sure enough, there it was looking very comfortable on the ice that had formed in the shelter of the city’s boat basin.
It was relatively unperturbed as we stood on the nearby wharf, snapping photos and enjoying this visitor from “upalong”. Although still a big animal, the relative small size (for a Bearded Seal) and the dark stripe on the forehead identify this one as an immature — maybe just a year old.
You never know what you’ll spot when you’re out & about!!
… and some very bad photos 😉
Last weekend, I found myself sitting in my car, staring at a feeder outside a house in Pouch Cove (~25 minutes from my own house) — for the third time that week. I was waiting for a visitor that eluded me the previous two trips, and starting to feel that my newest nemesis bird was about to have the last laugh yet again.
Then it happened … a female NORTHERN CARDINAL flew in out of nowhere, landed on the feeder for a few brief seconds, then disappeared behind a tangle of bare twigs in a nearby shrub. It was a brisk -25C (windchill) outside, but I rolled down my window, watched and snapped off some really poor photos during the next few minutes. It was rarely unobscured by something (branches, twigs, snow or even the feeder), but it was there — and it was a long-awaited “tick” on my Newfoundland bird list!
Northern Cardinals are surprisingly rare in Newfoundland. There was just one (undocumented) record prior to 2005 when one over-wintered on the island’s Great Northern Peninsula, and just two more confirmed records in the following ten years. However, the past few months may have signalled a change to that claim, as there have been more records (at least five!) this fall and winter than ever before. In fact, two (one male, one female) have been frequenting feeders on the Burin Peninsula for the past few months. This female in Pouch Cove is the easternmost so far, and close enough to St. John’s that most of the local birders (like me!) have been able to add it to their coveted lists.
Ten days prior to seeing this extreme Northern Cardinal (perhaps the most northeastern record ever?), I was watching another at the very opposite end of its breeding range – in the decidedly warmer weather (+30C) of northern Belize! And while I have only poor photos of both to share, I have the very cool memory of seeing them at their extremes this February!
** Below are a few of my favourite memories from the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Belize & Tikal — pardon the quality, as they were quick edits on my phone during the tour. I hope to post a summary of the trip, with lots more photos, soon —- but in the meantime you can check it out on my Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram accounts. **
Wow! Another year has come and gone … but not without plenty of adventure. The year 2018 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 18 images from 2018; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.
It’s been difficult to keep my blog updated during this busy year (and even this month — it has taken me weeks to write this post!) – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉
I was thrilled this weekend to spend a fun morning birding with my oldest daughter, Emma (9) … a morning which quickly turned “epic” as we ended up scoring two ABA (North American) rarities together!
It’s not always easy to find balance in life as a birder, professional nature guide and a parent of two busy girls. I have no shame admitting that I spend far less time birding “recreationally” for myself these days (I do, of course, spend a lot of time birding with tours and clients – but as fun as that is, it’s not quite the same) … and I spend most of my other weekends involved in an array of family activities. I encourage my girls to appreciate and explore nature and (especially) birds, but I have never pushed it on them. Much to my glee, Emma has been expressing lots of interest lately and has even been asking me to take her to see two rare PINK-FOOTED GEESE that showed up in St. John’s recently — something I was excited to make happen. We got up early on Saturday, grabbed a “birder’s breakfast” (Tim Horton’s muffin and coffee/hot chocolate!) and made the short drive across town under cover of darkness. The geese have been spending nights in a city pond, but consistently fly off within minutes of sunrise to spend the day at a currently unknown location — so the key to seeing them is to be early.
We were able to spot the two Pink-footed Geese, along with more than a dozen Canada Geese, through my Kowa scope while it was still quite dark. Joined by another local birder, we walked along the trail for a closer vantage point and waited for the light to trickle in, eventually enjoying longer and better looks. True to form, the entire flock of geese picked up shortly after sunrise and flew off over the nearby neighbourhood – no doubt to a farm field in nearby Kilbride or Goulds. The hadn’t stayed long enough to allow for decent photos, but our views has been excellent!
We still had the full morning ahead of us as we arrived back at the car, and were looking forward to some more birding … maybe driving around the local fields looking for the geese or a wayward Cattle Egret (numerous had been reported in eastern Newfoundland the past two days). Suddenly my phone buzzed with a message that an intriguing heron in Renews from the evening before had been confirmed as a mega-rare GRAY HERON and was still there this morning. Emma was gung-ho for the adventure, so we hit the highway south for what has always been one of my favourite birding locations. We chatted non-stop for the 1.5 hour drive (mostly about birds), and Emma even honed her eBird skills by entering a checklist all on her own.
We arrived at Renews to find fellow birder Peter Shelton looking at the Gray Heron on a rock across the inner bay – distant, but well within scope range. Emma was also thrilled to find a Harbour Seal on the rocks much closer to us. Eventually the heron picked up and flew around the harbour, eventually landing a little closer to the road on the other side where we enjoyed somewhat closer views … and met up with lots of other birders as they began to appear. Emma was in her glee enjoying the birds, meeting the other birders (although a little shy, I think she liked the attention she garnered as they youngest birder there!) and trying to photograph a very rare heron.
Though pressed for time (afternoon obligations – did I mention our girls are busy?!?!), we made a few quick stops on the drive home enjoying other notable birds such as a beautiful Bald Eagle sitting right beside the road, a late Greater Yellowlegs, and even Emma’s first ever Mourning Dove (not overly common in these parts). All in all, it was incredible morning of birding and one of the most memorable adventures I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with Emma. I think she’s hooked, so I look forward to many more 😉
“Optics” are an integral part of a birder’s life. Binoculars and (for many) spotting scopes are without a doubt the most important pieces of equipment we use … essential for almost every birding excursion or outing we make. And the more birding we do, the more important “quality” equipment becomes. We all want optics that are durable, weather-resistant, comfortable to use and, above all else, provide a bright & sharp image for our enjoyment.
I’ve owned and used several pairs of binoculars during my ~20 years of birding … starting with my father’s old Tasco tanks, which he used mostly for the occasional moose hunting trip. I bought my own first pair in university, when my birding hobby got serious, and moved up to a “mid-range” pair a few years later. I purchased my first scope in 2003 – a quality, second-hand one that had been only used a few times and was going for a “steal”. Those optics saw me through a lot of wonderful experiences – beautiful birds, rare sightings, and travel to some very cool places.
But last winter, I found myself needing to replace both my binoculars and my trusty scope. What better time for an upgrade to top-of-the-line equipment?!?! After a little research (reading reviews, chatting with a lot of birders in my network), it didn’t take long to decide that Kowa was the way to go. Kowa scopes are consistently rated at or near the top of the market for image and performance, and their new high-end line of binoculars were getting great reviews (although they hadn’t become popular in North American markets yet, so I knew very few birders who had them!). After talking with some of the lovely people at their North American offices, Kowa very generously offered to provide me with the gear I needed at a price I could appreciate. As a guide and tour leader, many birders from all over the world would enjoy an opportunity to try out, and likely be impressed by, their equipment every year.
I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the package arrived last March … and first impressions were everything I knew they would be. The sleek shape and elegant casing on both the scope and binoculars were a treat to look at, and the feel when I first picked them up were a real joy. These optics were made for my hands 😉 They had arrived just in the nick of time … I was leaving for a birding trip to Honduras the very next day, and the brand new Genesis 10.5×44 binoculars were going to get their first real test in that tropical paradise (I left the scope home for that adventure, but it has traveled everywhere with me since).
I’ve been using my Kowa gear for well over a year now, so it’s time to tell you what I think. And, overall, I think it’s great! My new scope is a Kowa TSN-883 Prominar … an 88mm spotting scope that is often ranked the best in market by professional reviewers. I opted for the angled version – a switch from my old straight scope I loved so much – mostly because of the flexibility it offers when birding with groups, as I almost always do. Angled scopes can be set up a lower level and still be accessible to people of most heights, and many birders insist that angled scopes are in general more comfortable and result in less neck strain when using it for long periods of time. It did take me a while to get used to the new perspective, but I have to say it’s been a positive change overall. That being said, the TSN scopes are available in both angled and straight models, and it’s really a matter of preference.
Despite the large objective size (88mm), the scope itself is relatively compact and light – making it easier than my previous model for both carrying and traveling. Without the eyepiece, it measures just 13.5 inches and was even able to fit in my carry-on satchel or camera bag when taking a flight (Note that Kowa also makes Prominar models in 77mm and compact 55mm sizes if travel and transport outweigh your need for a large objective). The TSN-883 has a magnesium alloy casing – making it lighter but reportedly just as strong as other brands in its class. The green finish on the casing is quite nice, although the lack of a rubber coating may leave it a little vulnerable to the elements. For added protection, I opted for a Kowa fitted scope cover which does a nice job of shielding the entire scope without making it impractical to use and has a very useful carrying strap. Of course, the scope itself is nitrogen purged and waterproof – like any optics at this end of the market should be.
All scopes in the Kowa Prominar line have one important thing in common – the objective lens is made of pure fluorite crystal, the standard in optical quality, and has a blend of Kowa’s special coatings to enhance both image and resilience. The result is a wonderful viewing experience – very bright, sharp and excellent colour resolution. Compared to my old scope, and most others that I’ve tried, the brightness of image really stands out when using my TSN-883 — and that matters! I’ve been able to use this scope at dusk and dawn, when many other scopes would have been all but useless. Brightness is also important when looking out over the dark waters of the ocean or on a grey foggy day (things we do a lot in Newfoundland). Birds and details appear very sharp in the scope, and focusing is fast and easy using the dual focusing wheel. Depth of field has been deep (wide?) enough that honing in on a subject isn’t impossible, but narrow enough that foreground and/or background are not too distracting. That sounds simple enough, but not every piece of optics can claim that “sweet spot” in the field of focusing. Notably, the image stays bright and sharp to the very edges of the image – something that can be annoying with lower quality lenses.
I love the flexibility of zoom lenses, so I opted for the Kowa 20-60x eyepiece when choosing my gear. The ability to scan an area and look for birds at low magnification but zoom in on a distant target when necessary is a very useful thing – especially when you’re like me and spend a lot of time watching seabirds and shorebirds. Like the scope body, Kowa eyepieces are also nitrogen purged and waterproof – an important feature considering it is one part of the system that is always exposed to the weather when in use. The eyepiece connects easily to the body, but has a push-button release mechanism that keeps it safely in place until you actually “want” it to come off. Zooming occurs smoothly with a twist of the eyepiece, meaning its easier to stay on a target (even a moving one) when doing so. The image of course loses a little brightness at high magnifications, but less than I was used to with my old scope and zoom eyepiece … and sharpness remains surprisingly good even at 60x. I haven’t for a moment regretted my choice of eyepiece – but for those interested, there are several other options including a 30x wide angle and 25x long eye-relief models.
* Don’t just take my word for it … Many of my tour guests over the past year have commented on the clear, sharp and bright views they enjoyed while using my scope; including experienced birders who own or have used other top brands. Sometimes, it was as much a conversation piece as it was a piece of equipment 😉
As much as I use and enjoy my scope, it should come as no surprise that I (along with most birders) use my binoculars far more often. Binoculars are the essential, if not diagnostic, trademark of a birder — the one piece of equipment that makes us recognizable in the outdoors world, and allows us to enjoy our sport to its fullest. I “need” a quality pair of binoculars, and my new Kowa Genesis XD 10.5×44 did not disappoint.
The key feature of the Genesis XD binoculars is that they use the same extra low dispersion glass as the Prominar scopes, resulting in a very sharp, bright and colour-correct image. The improved viewing compared to my old binoculars was amazing – and easily compared to my experiences looking through similar high-end binoculars belonging to friends and colleagues (including Swarovski and Zeiss). I chose to go with the 10.5×44 model since I was already using 10x binoculars, and prefer the higher magnification for the amount of seawtaching I tend to do. That being said, many birders prefer 8x models for various reasons (wider field of view, less visible shake, etc.) and the Genesis 8.5×44 are equally well reviewed.
Another notable feature of these binoculars is the 44mm objective lenses (vs 42mm in most similar models). The difference may seem minimal, but is actually quite significant – the additional light produces a brighter image that really adds to the overall viewing experience and makes the binoculars usable in slightly dimmer situations (dawn, dusk and foul weather) than they might otherwise be. Interestingly, the objective lenses are threaded to allow the use of 46mm filters – not something that birders tend to do, but could very useful for those who (also?) use their binoculars for viewing the night sky. Combined with the larger magnification and objective size, I imagine these are ideal binoculars for people who dabble in both birding and stargazing.
The one down-side of the increased magnification and objective lenses is that it results in a somewhat larger, heavier pair of binoculars – in fact, they are notably heavier than most similar models. To be honest, I knew this before choosing them and was expecting it to be an issue (if minor), but have to admit that it has not. Even though I still use a traditional neckstrap, I have not noticed any neck strain from long period of use (note that I use an off-brand, cushioned strap that I have loved for years, and have not actually tried the Kowa strap that came with the binoculars). They do feel a bit heavy after holding them up for long periods, but they are so well shaped and comfortable to hold that the weight becomes an after-thought. All that beings said, the additional weight might be consideration for those who prefer lightweight optics, have strength/endurance issues with their arms, or tend to experience some shaking when using binoculars (I don’t like to say it, but especially “older” birders). Like the Kowa scopes and most high-end brands, the binoculars themselves are nitrogen purged and fully water/fog-proof for use in the real world.
Focusing with these binoculars is impressively smooth and comfortable – the central focusing wheel is large, well textured for gripping your finger, and adjusts both quickly and easily. Fine adjustments are easily made, but at the same time I don’t find it “too” sensitive – which can sometimes lead to frustration as you try to get the focus just right. As a birder with interests in broader aspects of nature, I often use my binoculars to look at wildflowers, butterflies and other things during my explorations — things that are sometimes relatively close. I have been very impressed with the “close focus” of these binoculars – coming in at well under 6ft (5.5ft in the specs) and as good as any binoculars I’ve used. In my opinion, this is a very important (and often under-rated) feature that helps set the best binoculars apart from others. If you’ve never enjoyed a colourful spring warbler at full frame in your binoculars, you’re missing out!
The Genesis binoculars have sturdy twist-up eye cups, which I have found to be very useful and stay in place when I’ve set them (an issue I have had with other pairs, when I would sometimes raise them to my eyes and discover one eye cup in the wrong position – occasionally making me miss a flitting bird!). The diopter (used for individually focusing each eye) also has a locking system that prevent it from changing unexpectedly – an issue I have also had with many other pairs. The reported eye relief on this model is 16mm – just on the verge of what most manufacturers/users would consider to be “long eye relief”. This makes them quite comfortable to use with the eye cups fully extended (which I prefer to block out peripheral light), and should be fine for users wearing eyeglasses (something I’ll learn more about over the next few months as I have just started wearing my first pair).
Kowa has also put a lot of thought and effort into the field of “digiscoping” (i.e. using their high-end scopes in combination with digital cameras and phones for photography and/or video). I hope to experiment with this more in the future!
Finally, a quick comment on customer service with Kowa – which I’ve had opportunity to experience twice since receiving my new optics. Although they have no Canadian offices (a slight inconvenience for us Canadian customers), folks working at their North American offices in California were quick to answer my questions and help in any way. After realizing a small piece (diopter ring) on my new binoculars arrived broken, they expedited a replacement piece to me that arrived within a few days. I also had a very unfortunate incident with my scope, causing the mount to break (due to a significant impact, and not due to any defect or shortfall in the scope itself). The service department at Kowa took care of it quickly, receiving and returning the perfectly repaired scope in excellent time (considering it had to go all the way to California). They have been wonderful to deal with when I need to (although I always hope I don’t!).
I know, I know … you don’t need to remind me. It’s been a while since I updated this blog.
This summer was incredibly fun … and busy … and fun. Once again, I was privileged to share beautiful birds, nature, places and experiences with many visitors — from spectacular seabird colonies to quiet walks in the forest; from the rugged shores of Newfoundland to migration hot spots in the southernmost reaches of Ontario. Since the beginning of May I’ve led tours in three different provinces (Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland), spent a week exploring our beautiful coast and isolated communities aboard an expedition cruise ship, and of course spent many days showing off the amazing birds, wildlife and scenery of my island home to dozens of BirdTheRock clients and guests. It’s a blessed life.
As the busy summer comes to an end, I’m looking forward to catching up on my photos, sharing the stories, reliving the memories, and planning for many more adventures. Stay tuned! For now, here are just a few of my favourite photos from Summer 2018:
And … be sure to join me for an adventure real soon!
I was leading an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in Ontario (Point Pelee, Rondeau, Long Point & Algonquin) when I first heard the news … a brilliant adult PURPLE GALLINULE was discovered roaming on the Waterford River in St. John’s – just minutes from my house!! Despite the fact I was enjoying awesome birds & birding in some wonderful places, there was still a sting to knowing I was missing such a great bird on my home “patch”.
As luck should have it, this colourful visitor from the south decided to stick around — and I arrived home in plenty of time to catch up with it on May 16. What a stunner!
Purple Gallinules are residents of marshes and other grassy wetlands from the southern United States to South America, so very much out of place on a river in eastern Newfoundland. In fact, before this I had only seen this species in Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago! This individual may have arrived on strong southerly winds of late April, which also brought warm weather and numerous herons/egret to Newfoundland at that time. With its secretive habits, it could easily have went unnoticed for the next few weeks until it was reported by some fishermen on May 12. It seems to be healthy and doing well, still present as of at least May 23 (although I imagine it has struggled with the cold weather of the past 24 hrs as I write this).
Incredibly, Purple Gallinule is a more regular vagrant to our shores than you might expect. This bird represents ~30th record for the island, but the first that has “chasable” by local birders and/or has been seen for more than one day. Most records are in late fall or winter, and the majority of those immature birds that are more prone to vagrancy. Many have been found moribund or already succumbed to the elements and its long journey north. A bright spring adult was a real treat — and a great “welcome home” surprise after my own wanderings!